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Pseudo-Callisthenes Style and Imaginative points of view: In "Alexander Romance"

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The life of Alexander has been a popular story and story for centuries. He performed a long conquest through Asia and Egypt where Alexander was able to conquer most of the known world. However, throughout his life there is a lot of room for interpretation of events that actually happened and ones that were completely fiction. Two very distinct biographies of Alexander, The Great Life of Alexander written by Plutarch and The Alexander Romance, which was written as an historical novel by Pseudo-Callisthenes, have very contrasting styles, which bring Alexander’s life to the populace. Life of Alexander was written years before the fictional novel The Alexander Romance. It could be concluded that Plutarch’s biography helped influence other stories and legends of Alexander the Great. The story Alexander in The Alexander Romance style of writing was more effective in telling a story of a legend whereas The Life of Alexander was effective in showing both sides of Alexander: the good and bad sides of his character. This allows the audience to choose their opinion about Alexander. The factual and fictional events that actually occurred in both sources to demonstrate why Alexander’s story was more fascinating to the audience in The Alexander Romance through the author’s writing techniques.

Tools and Styles in Alexander's StoryEdit

The writing style of Plutarch in the story of Life of Alexander the Great makes Alexander a very complex character, where Plutarch displays the complexity of the world that Alexander lived in. One important event, which was depicted differently, was how Alexander was conceived. In Plutarch it was said that Alexander’s mother Olympia was with child before. “But Aristander Telmesian answered again, that it signified his wife was conceived with child, for that they do not seal a vessel that hath nothing in it and that she was with child with a boy, which should have a lion’s heart” (Plutarch 386). The importance of this passage was to depict that Alexander had a vast sense of courage even before he was born, to foreshadow his life as a king. The actual unknown of how Alexander was born left room for a different interpretation in The Alexander Romance. Here, Alexander supposedly had a different father who was a King of Egypt named Nektanebos. The Persians were coming to invade Egypt. Nektanebos therefore fled to Macedonia where he met Olympias. In the passage, Nektanebos is able to deceive Olympias into having intercourse with him.

He replied, ‘You must have intercourse with a god on earth, conceived by him, bear a son and rear him, and have him to avenge you for the wrongs Philip has done you.’ ‘with golden hair and beard and with horns growing from his forehead—these too just like gold. So you must get yourself ready like a queen for him, because today in a dream you shall see this god have intercourse with you’ (Callisthenes 171). This was a completely different twist to Alexander’s story when most sources said that King Philip was Alexander’s father. This passage also was one of first of many different dialogues in this novel. In Plutarch, there were fewer uses of dialogue unless it specifically dealt with Alexander. However, in this novel Callisthenes created another father, which made an interesting twist to Alexander story where he had two fathers, one paternal and one fraternal. The fact that no one truly knows who is Alexander’s father allows the writer to be more creative. This also allows an interest and investment on behalf of the audience instead of hearing just straight facts of his life by adding more drama and conflict to the story. An interesting trait in The Alexander Romance was the use of the pagan rituals in the story. The use of the pagan and mythical rituals made an appeal to the populace of the third century and which appeals to people even in our time. The first use of a pagan ritual was in the very beginning with Nektanebos. So Nektanebos left the queen and picked from the wasteland herbs he knew for bringing dreams and extracted their juices. Then he made a wax model in the shape of a woman and wrote on it the name of Olympias. He lit lamps and, sprinkling the juice form the herbs over them, invoked with oaths the demons appointed to this function so that Olympias had a vision (Callisthenes 172).

The pagan ritual that took place shows the common knowledge of the people who were reading this novel. So in this case this would spark the interest and knowledge of the audience. Since most people during this era knew Alexander the Great’s general story, adding creative portrayals of his life allowed more substance to the story. Another viewpoint would be that people during his time really believed that there had to be some kind of magic or help from the gods in which Alexander was able to conquer so much land in such a short period of time. Another use of a pagan ritual was when “Presently Nektanebos took a sea hawk and enchanted it. He told it everything he wanted said to Philip in a dream, using the black arts of magic to prepare it.” (Callisthenes 173). This again shows a pagan ritual in which Alexander’s father tricks Olympias into having a child with him. This overall use of pagan and mystical rituals help draw the reader and make the story more fascinating. Another event that happen in Alexander’s life was the choosing of the untamed horse. The significance of this event showed how Alexander had a way with words at a young age. This was shown in Plutarch: “Then Alexander speaking gently to the horse, and clapping him on the back with his hand, till he had left his fury and snorting, softly let fall his cloak from him, and lightly leaping on his back got up without any danger, and holding the reins of the bridle hard, without striking or stirring the horse, made him to be gentle enough”(Plutarch 390). This portrayed Alexander to have control and ambition during his early life. While in The Alexander Romance there were similarities where they described the event, Callisthenes turned the horse into a man-eater but the horse was not terrified by Alexander’s voice. “And when Alexander went up to the cage, straightaway the horse extended its forefeet to Alexander and licked him, indication who its master was.” (Callisthenes 178). In this case, Callisthenes was trying to depict Alexander very similarly to the Alexander in Plutarch but to a certain extent, the horse was described to be more horrid. By making this scene of the book more mystical allowed there to be more imagination towards the reader.Another tool that Callisthenes used in The Alexander Romance was the reference to the Odyssey. And with these words Alexander seized the sword from Philip, his father and left all the guest half slaughtered It was just like watching the story of the Centaurs: some fled under the couches; some used tables for cover; others hid in dark areas. The result was that you could see Alexander as another, latter-day, Odysseus killing the suitors of Penelope” (Callisthenes 181). This was an interesting attribute since this passage described Alexander as a character similar to Odysseus, which in a sense is very true. Therefore, Callisthenes was able to make a connection of the two men known for their courage and quest through the world displayed by similar traits in their character in men. Callisthenes wanted the audience to compare Alexander’s character to amplify a certain feature in his character.

Another characteristic that was profound in The Alexander Romance, which was a very effective way of presenting the story, was the use of the letters between Alexander and other characters in his life. This feature of the letters makes the story more authentic. One in particular was the letters between Darius and Alexander. This was extremely important since defeating the Persians was a main goal Alexander wanted to obtain. There was a sufficient amount of detail about the battles and places where Alexander went but nothing compared to the detail in Plutarch’s biography, which had excess information. Callisthenes was able to use certain events in Alexander life to focus and put more energy into the story. In this case Callisthenes wanted to take a different approach where the audience could learn more about all the roles of the characters in Alexander’s life and what are some of the possible things those people were doing and thinking. In the first confrontation with Darius and Alexander we get a sense that both of them think they are better than the other, especially Darius who refers to himself as “kinsman of the gods, I who rise to heaven with the Sun, a god myself” which portrays Darius as very arrogant. He also went and wrote statements to make fun of Alexander for example, “I instruct you to return to your parents, to be my slave, and to sleep in the lap of your mother, Olympias: that is how old your are- you need to be corrected and nursed. So I have sent you a strap, a ball, and a money box of gold, and you can take whatever you like first. I sent the strap to left you know you still need correction.” (Callisthenes 193) This statement was not only humorous but brought a different perception of King Darius. In the reply to Darius’s letter Alexander mocks Darius and displays his plan on vengeance due to the previous King Xerxes who marched into Greece.

The later letters between King Darius and Alexander dramatically changed as the audience watches the progression of the battles between the Macedonians and Persians, where Macedonians were continuously winning against the Persians even if there were large losses on both sides. Therefore the death of Darius was critical part and success in Alexander’s life. However, Callisthenes shows a different interpretation of Alexander’s character when Darius died. This was told that, “Alexander wailed and wept with feeling for Darius, then gave instructions for him to be buried in the Persian manner” (Callisthenes 215). This was ironic since the whole purpose of his conquest was to obtain Asia. Yet the purpose of Callisthenes doing this scene shows sympathy and love that Alexander had for his enemy, since it was told in Plutarch that Alexander treated Darius’s family with the utmost respect even though he was in battle with Darius. Callisthenes uses Darius’s last words to Alexander even though Alexander was not the one to kill Darius. This theme of unity and romance was brought out especially in this passage:“ ‘When I die, Alexander, bury me with your own hands. Let Macedonians and Persians conduct my funeral. Darius and Alexander shall be of one family. I entrust my mother to you as though she were your; mother pity my wife as through she were your sister. My daughter Roxana I give to you as wife, so that you may leave children in remembrance for endless ages’” (Callisthenes 214). This part did not show the typical victory of a king but a romance between two enemies who wanted similar things. That was the ambition and greed towards life, which they both had.

By doing this Callisthenes really gets the audience emotionally engage into the novel of Alexander more so then just telling a similar interpretation of Alexander’s life. This makes a great novel since the life of Alexander contains universal themes, which could relate to anyone from years before he was born and after due strictly to the story of his journey and the characters he met on the way. Therefore using certain traits in his writing such as the focusing on certain events with new creative interpretation, the uses of pagan rituals, the uses of letters metaphors, and dialogue throughout the novel really makes this story have a lot of tools in attracting a reader. This was also done well with the influence of Life of Alexander the Great through Plutarch where Callisthenes took a different approach in displaying Alexander’s life to the public.


Hansen, William F. "The Alexander Romance." Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. 168-246. Print.

Plutarch, John Dryden, and Arthur Hugh Clough. "Life of Alexander the Great." The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans,. New York: Modern Library, 1932. 385-465. Print.

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